Yuppie drama in expanded version of Carly Simon’s Spoiled Girl. Cult masterpiece or cult disaster?
On its release in 1985, Rolling Stone slated Spoiled Girl, Carly Simon’s 12th studio album, calling it “utterly inconsequential” due to its clichéd lyrics and characters. The album was a relative commercial failure, peaking at number 88 in the US Billboard album charts, and slunk away to be quietly forgotten. Two years later Simon emerged with Coming Around Again, and the story was entirely different: a hit record, two Grammy Awards, and what seemed like constant rotation on video channels.
Despite the apparent disaster of Spoiled Girl,the album produced two singles, “Tired of Being Blonde” and “My New Boyfriend”, and has been re-released on CD several times before including a 2012 deluxe edition through Hot Shot Records. The accompanying press release for this 2015 release by Cherry Red (which is a “repress” of the Hot Shot deluxe and has the same extras) describes the album as a “cult classic” and “one of the most cohesive, well written and produced multi-producer albums of the mid-'80s”. This may seem unlikely in light of the strong reservations expressed in the Rolling Stone review, although that reviewer did consider it Simon’s “most listenable album in years”. Of course Spoiled Girl could be a “cult favourite” because it’s so comically poor, but this is not the ordinary meaning; cult records usually have their status because they are thought to be over-looked works of genius.
What is certain is that this is an album submerged in big console studio gloss. “My New Boyfriend”, for example, is a perfectly good song but is full of unfortunate ‘80s effects. “Come Back Home”, with its smoothly nostalgic vocal, indicates the direction Simon would take for Coming Around Again, but some of the synthesizer work stands out as being over-dramatic. “Tonight and Forever” seems sincere as love songs go and is well sung by Simon, but the overly romantic backing vocals push it into the territory of a Christmas Carol.
It could be said that the concerns of ‘80s subject matter find their match in the contemporary arrangements; “Spoiled Girl” gently rails at the selfishness of yuppie culture, “Tired of Being Blonde” is all Porsches and “platinum desperation”, and “The Wives Are in Connecticut” describes a horrifyingly jaunty world in which the pre-feminist wives are hanging around anxiously, waiting for the return of their adulterous husbands. However the warmth of the singing detracts from any satirical intention. Also, as engineer Frank Flipetti suggests in the sleeve notes, Simon has a talent for pointing “scathing social satire” at herself as well as at others. As a result the album misfires, and listening to the record today is a kitsch, camp experience; although there is some acknowledgment of the problems of the decade, the music itself is overpowering and eradicates any sense of irony. Simon is hardly to blame for this; in hindsight, yes, the ‘80s was choc-a-bloc with cultural dross and questionable values, but it can be difficult to recognize the type of water you’re navigating when you’re immersed in it. Lots of artists struggled, possibly in proportion to the amount of champagne being drunk.
Still, there are some good things to take away. “Anyone But Me” shows off the big range of Simon’s voice, which is darkly dramatic on the low notes. The idea of the star-struck interviewer in “Interview” rings a vague bell with the writer of this article and, despite the cringe-inducing spoken word section, is appallingly catchy. But then so are some diseases.
A slightly more positive review than the Rolling Stone article appeared in the New York Times, and made the interesting suggestion that all the frantic romantic activity on the album is just a form of self-dramatization, with the sport of love becoming an exercise in acting; “when the players get bored with their roles they simply change partners and start the drama over." This is an insightful statement, and gets to the root of one of the problems of the album; the characters are self-indulgent and not terribly likeable. The neurotic protagonist in “Make Me Feel Something” has a litany of complaints: she feels old, has been going through the motions and admits she is too controlling/has only been pretending. But by the end of the song, the listener has run out of sympathy for such a self-absorbed character. The ego-centric aerobic tone of closer “Can’t Give It Up” (with backing vocals from Luther Vandross) re-affirms the appropriateness of the album title – this is a record often focused on spoilt, inward looking individuals.
The first bonus track “Black Honeymoon” was the B-side for the single “Tired of Being Blonde” and appeared only on the cassette and CD versions of the original album, but not on the vinyl LP. Working through the troubles of sexual jealousy, this is one of the best tracks here. The single version of “Tired of Being Blonde” does not add much, but is helpful for completists. Finally there’s the 12” remix of “My New Boyfriend” and 12” dub version; both of these are everything you could imagine and more.
With at least eight producers (including Arthur Baker and Phil Ramone) and a number of co-writers (such as Don Was and the wonderfully-named Larry Rasperry), this was a collective effort in the same way as Tina Turner’s ‘80s big-hitter Private Dancer. Simon gracefully admits in the sleeve notes written by PopMatters’ Christian John Wikane that overall it’s a disparate album and “it just doesn’t work altogether”. However it’s the fatal combination of yuppie values and dreadful ‘80s production work which will ensure this album’s longevity as a great adventure in musical wonkiness.